Watching art and life come together in a way that seems nothing short of naturally organic is one of the joys of being an art critic. Aaron Ashcraft, whose works are on exhibit at Finch Lane’s West Gallery this month, brings his craft to full life-like fruition with ceramic work that speaks as if ideologically voiced in the vocabulary of the tradition of historic sculpture, yet formed in a manner that melds this tradition with the fibrous being of nature, not as we know it, but as history once found it, with its own temporality and its own geology. His work speaks its own language, calling from another time and another place, haunting and distant, yet brought very present by the hands and spirit of Ashcraft.
Above and beyond anything else, Ashcraft, who holds a BFA and BA from the University of Utah, uses ceramics to “create a surface to make marks on. But at the same time,” he says, “there’s something beyond that surface.”
“Whenever you talk about ceramic work, there is a historical element,” Ashcraft says. “If you take a ceramic piece that is several hundred years old, it is no longer in the society that it is created of; it has a certain separate nature from everything else in and of itself. So you can only view it as the object you are looking at now because you have no context, no way to really relate to that previous society. Inevitably everything is taken out of the society it is created of, but it still has an inherent quality in and of itself.”
An Ashcraft piece might be circular hollowed disks on a wall; they might be squared-off log-like shapes slightly bowed and set at angles, stacked one atop the other; they might be tall ever-so slightly curved towers with sections of the form cut away adding definitive dimension; or they might be tower-like miniatures at irregular heights each leaning moderately one way or the next. His sculpture is obviously an exploration of form, but more than the form itself, it is what is happening on the form, and more essentially, what is happening within, that matters.
There is a distinctive poetic visual lexicon used here, and in it one begins to see methodologies of Zen Buddhism take form and ideology. The motifs… marks… that you see, you see repeatedly, and assembled meticulously in sections on each piece. There is no mass diffusion of anything like a collage of visual elements, but an orderly and organized visual compendium of pattern, line and texture.
Says Ashcraft, “I like the suggestiveness of the natural environment in the pieces. I don’t necessarily need to define everything as a realist painter would. I like a suggestion to hint to the viewer something that is an indication of the natural. I like that sense that gives the pieces life.”
And nothing that a “realist painter” could possibly do would give more life to these ceramic entities than what is entailed by these indications of nature. These suggestions, or marks, include waves of line that mimic either the sands of a desert, sea, or a manicured Japanese Zen garden; thin lines of a different hue, texture, width, that imply more of a rhythm and exactitude; an irregular surface that has humps and is glazed and colored in a lichen green, implying just that or more so, moss growing on an old formation with water gliding over it. But most dramatically set and cutting to the core of the structures like veins giving life to the body of each are fissures, boldly painted in black, that find their way breaking through the surface and cutting one way or the next.
“The structures exist before they go into the kiln. The last thing I do is the brush marks,” Ashcraft says of these current pieces. “All of the brushwork you see happens right before I put it into the kiln. I want spontaneity after all of the time structuring these pieces. I want an immediate effect.” These painted fissures, in reality, allow for the implication of the essence of being of these entities. The artist says they look to him something like the dry caked mud of a desert floor.
“It takes on a purpose of its own,” he says of the work. To be true to the reality of the work, they must be recognized as the bearers of marks of a life beyond ours and a space and time different from our own just as “a ceramic piece that is several hundred years old, it is no longer in the society that it is created of; it has a certain separate nature from everything else in and of itself.”
In this sense and only in this sense, can the full aesthetic measure of these pieces be fully realized in the context introduced by Ashcraft. Given the marks of time past; the waves made, the lines carved, the moss grown, and the fissures as dead as the dry caked mud, we observe these objects as if figuratively decontextualized and literally recontextualized by the artist for today’s contemporary eyes. But it is our eyes that must adjust and the viewer of this poetic form must learn to see it on its terms, on Ashcraft’s terms, if the fullness of beauty contained is to be recognized.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.